Inner Strength College Student Overcomes Disabilities With Willpower, High-Tech Tools
He “talks” by tapping out Morse code with his feet. A computer is his voice.
He can’t walk. He can’t even feed or dress himself, but he goes to college.
Next spring, Paul Clements expects to graduate with a degree in psychology from Eastern Washington University.
A victim of cerebral palsy, Clements sees and hears like any other 27-year-old, but relies on technology to say what’s on his mind.
“I love to learn,” he said in a message sent through his computer. “I never think of myself as disabled, so I don’t think of college as being a challenge in that way.”
At one time, disability imprisoned him, but his achievements as a student tell something about the potential of the human spirit.
“No problem is impossible to solve,” he said.
Communication is far from easy. Every letter of every word is work.
It took years of experimentation and the cleverness of a computer engineer to unlock Clements’ world. He calls it “my electronic dream come true.”
Cerebral palsy took away his muscle control but left his mind intact.
The disability is so bad he has trouble swallowing food fed to him by hand. An attendant and family members do his simplest chores, even clipping his fingernails.
In order to talk and write, he pushes down on foot pads that send Morse code signals to a laptop computer on the armrests of his wheelchair.
His gnarled, useless hands lie on top of each another in his lap.
He strains as he moves his feet back and forth, and after a few minutes of “talking,” beads of sweat break out on his brow.
A voice synthesizer at the rear of the chair turns the electronic messages into audible words.
A graduate of Rogers High School, Clements has been going to EWU for five years and he’s widely known on campus. As he travels around in his electric wheelchair, people stop to talk to him.
He keeps his class loads light because it takes so long to write essays and papers. This quarter, he’s taking ethics and prehistoric anthropology.
His classmates are impressed.
“He doesn’t talk very often, but when he does talk, he makes good points,” said Amber Hanes, a sophomore in the ethics class.
Clements sits up front. Hanes is in back. She said she can tell when Clements has an idea. “He starts moving around and you know Paul’s thinking,” she said.
Associate Professor Bill Rottmayer said Clements is clearly the intellectual equal of his peers in class. “He’s one of the students who has thought more deeply about these ethical issues,” Rottmayer said.
Clements is a master of nonverbal communication. His personal attendant, Terri Wisdom, reacts to Clements without a word being exchanged.
When it comes to yes or no, he’s quick to answer. He lifts his head and gives a high-pitched “hmm” for yes. The opposite means no - he drops his head and uses a lower pitch. But it’s the look in his eyes that says more.
Wisdom stays with Clements throughout the day, going to classes with him, handling the paperwork and taking care of personal needs. She is paid by the state.
Wisdom said she’s amazed at how much energy Clements has. He belongs to a Christian group called the Kampus Sonshine and is an advocate for disabled students.
“He’d live here if he could,” she said.
Clements doesn’t let his disability keep him from being active.
Surprisingly, Clements is a weightlifter. He has enough motion in his upper arms to pull 225 pounds on a weight machine in the campus workout room.
His attendant attaches straps to his wrists, and helps Clements onto his knees. The straps are hooked to a pulley, and Clements flexes his arms and shoulders to lift the weights.
He also enjoys dancing in his wheelchair, snowmobiling with his parents and “surfing” the Internet.
He’s gone on dates, and has developed a strong friendship with one of the Christian women.
He said he hopes to get married some day, but not until he gets out of school and goes to work.
“I am a regular guy,” he said.
He hopes to become a counselor for the disabled or a college researcher. He is planning to get a master’s degree.
“I feel I have a mission in life to teach people about disabilities,” he said.
When Clements was born, oxygen was cut off to his brain for nearly 15 minutes. He spent a month in the hospital before going home as a frail 3-pound infant.
As he began to grow, doctors thought he was retarded.
But his parents, Floyd and Gloria Clements, fought for him. They argued with principals and teachers to get him enrolled in regular classes. Gloria Clements insisted he had to earn his grades just like any other student. He is the youngest of their three children.
When Paul Clements was 14, Floyd Clements teamed up with computer engineer Roger Wink to design his first communication system. His son learned the Morse code in two days. As the technology improved, so has Clements’ system.
Today, his bedroom in the Clements’ home is equipped with a personal computer, telephone and fax machine. He has his own telephone line.
“I never dreamed he’d go this far,” said Gloria Clements. “Paul is fortunate to have a good brain.”
But it’s been a constant struggle for her. He was a full-time job for the first nine years, and he still requires a lot of attention, she said.
When he reads, his parents go to his room every so often to turn the pages.
“If he sneezes, you have to be there to wipe his nose,” Gloria Clements said.
She wants him to be as independent as possible, and she is encouraging his plans to move into a duplex with a roommate and a paid attendant.
One of his heroes is British physicist Stephen Hawking who is similarly disabled from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Because of his disability, Clements has trouble with spelling and punctuation. Word processing programs in the computer help. He doesn’t take tests in class because he’s so slow with his answers. His professors send tests home to give him extra time. He doesn’t cheat, he said.
Clements is quick to share the credit for his success. He said he would never have made it without his faith, his parents and friends.
“God picked the right parents for me,” he said.
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